Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: December 2006

Once More, With Feeling?

My day is very cluttered, and I doubt I’ll have time to write anything substantive for the blog today, but I wanted to point readers who might have been following the ongoing conversation between this blog and Larval Subjects, to Sinthome’s latest response.

I’ll confess that I got a bit of a fright, seeing the title of the post – which is “Rough Theory – The Surly Edition”… ;-P On what I must confess is a bit of a “drive by” reading of this post, though, it looks as though Sinthome is, not surprisingly, already very familiar with the ground I was trying to cover in yesterday’s post – and has offered some useful suggestions for further thought on the issue. I’ll also confirm that my intention – in all exchanges of this kind – is essentially collaborative: I regard the stakes as too important, and the task as too difficult, to approach the issue as anything other than a process of collective learning…

When I next have time, I’ll try to situate myself more explicitly in relation to some of the literatures Sinthome references in this latest post.

Once More, With Meaning!

Necker cube - drawing of an impossible cube.One of the things that has been most characteristic of my theoretical work over the past several years has been the fact that I seem to devote the most time, not to answering questions, and not even to asking them – but to trying to communicate that a particular kind of question exists. I have a sense that, in addition to the familiar sorts of questions we are used to asking, there is another category of question that too often remains unasked or, if asked, is often asked incompletely, or without a clearly expressed relationship to fairly central political and philosophical problems.

Looking back over the most recent exchange with Sinthome – at the questions I was trying to ask, and then at how Sinthome, quite reasonably and thoughtfully, sought to respond – I have a familiar sinking sensation that I have failed yet again to ask my own question… I would expect that the end result, from Sinthome’s perspective and from the perspective of readers of this conversation, would be a perception that we might be talking past one another – or, more specifically, confusion as to why I seem to keep speaking as though Sinthome has not responded to my question. I am thinking specifically of the moment within this exchange where, in response to my questions about historical and material conditions for knowledge, Sinthome replies:

However, everything changes once we recognize that the subject itself is caught up in these networks of relations, and it becomes possible to see knowledge as an ontological result of a process of individuation (here and here and here and here). To try to put the point a bit more clearly, knowledge must be seen as resulting from the milieu in which it is individuated, or its field of engagement. I take it that this responds to your remarks about material and historical conditions. If this is ontological rather than epistemological, then this is because there is no further being in-itself beyond these interactions and relations that would be a true object of knowledge. None of this is to suggest that I am a Hegelian or that I follow him in all the claims he makes. I do find, however, that the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, is a model of clear thinking (though not clear writing), and of great interest to anyone committed to relational ontology and fatigued by ineffectual epistemic critiques.

Consequently, my proposal is that rather than asking which is the right form of knowledge or claiming that there is no knowledge, we instead look at how knowledges are individuated and produced in a specific field of relations. This would also amount to a theory of learning rather than a theory of representing. Of course, this raises significant questions with regard to the Enlightenment project of critique and demystification that I have not yet worked through. (italics mine)

So, Sinthome has explicitly attempted to reply to my questions about how we should understand historical conditions of possibility for knowledge – and, what’s more, I agree with much if not all of the content of Sinthome’s response. Yet, in my reply this morning, there I am, still lecturing pedantically about the need to deploy historical and sociological perspectives – as though Sinthome had rejected this suggestion. In what way do I find Sinthome’s answer unsatisfying? What am I on about, if not the sorts of things Sinthome has already addressed? ;-P

The problem isn’t with Sinthome’s reading of my questions – this is the point where I routinely get myself into trouble and, to paraphrase the old joke, the only consistent thing in all my poor communications is me… I think I routinely run into this problem, in part, because the questions I’m asking are actually quite unprofound – they are, in a sense, far less sophisticated than the questions Sinthome has tried to answer (and enormously less sophisticated than the wonderful questions Sinthome explores in the writings on individuation, linked in the quoted passage above). I worry – constantly – that I’m being quite misguided in fixating on particular kinds of questions: that everyone just might be thinking – well, you can’t mean that, because that would just be too ridiculous – and so they substitute something more sophisticated as a matter of simple politeness, grounded in their incredulity that anyone would ask what I’m actually asking… Nevertheless, I can’t seem to shake the questions, or the sense that they might tell us something useful. So I’ll make one further attempt, hopefully clearer than the previous ones… To do this, I want to take a very, very quick look, not at the content of Sinthome’s work on individuation, but the form.

Sinthome’s work on individuation tackles the problem of how we might escape from a subject-object dualism, while still retaining the ability to speak in a meaningful way about the relationships between subjectivity and objectivty (I should note that I am being very sloppy with my language here – this is not how Sinthome would express this problematic – I’ll ask forebearance on this issue because my “target” in this analysis is not actually how we can best understand individuation, but instead something more abstract: I’m trying to illustrate something about the habits of thought into which most of us – including myself – tend to fall when we seek to resolve this kind of philosophical dichotomy). Sinthome tackles this problem on two fronts across different posts: the primary front is conceptual/philosophical – asking: how can we arrive at better concepts, better and clearer ways of thinking, which will relieve us from the conceptual errors and limitations intrinsic once we posit an ontological opposition between subjects and objects?; a significant secondary front is empiricist/scientific – asking: what does current research into empirical phenomena related to individuation suggest to us about how we should conceptualise the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity?

Sinthome’s thought on these questions is subtle and sophisticated, and I wish to be very clear that I am not trying to criticise any substantive points put forward in Sinthome’s posts. What I wish to ask, though, is whether the kind of reflection Sinthome carries out here might in its own practice remain bound to a subject-object divide: whether the practice of thinking through this issue, as carried out in these posts, is consistent with the express goal of the posts, which is to develop a system that transcends subject-object dualism.

I find this point maddeningly difficult to express, so I blame no one but myself if my point seems completely opaque… I’ll try to unpack this a bit more clearly… The habit we tend to fall into when putting forward new approaches – whether in philosophy or science or any other field where we believe we are making novel claims – is to treat our own insights as discoveries. This habit manifests itself in different ways. One is the tendency to treat opposing positions as the products of poor reasoning, and our own positions, by contrast, as the products of a better, clearer, more precise reasoning process. Another is the tendency to point to novel empirical facts, and to behave as though these empirical novelties have motivated (or justified) the emergence of new concepts.

In drawing attention to these common means of explaining the rise of new concepts, I am obviously not seeking to criticise precise reasoning, or to argue against philosophical reflection on the natural world. I am, though, asking whether the form that philosophical argument takes, when it appeals to subjective error or objective empirical novelty, can be understood to be adequate when the content or purpose of philosophical reflection strives to overturn the subject-object dualism. Perhaps we need to be seeking a form of philosophical exposition that is more adequate to the content it seeks to express. I regard this as an epistemological task – where epistemology is understood as, to borrow a phrase from Sinthome, a “theory of learning”, rather than as itself a project grounded in the subject-object divide. And I think that Hegel – and, for that matter, Marx – by focussing their attention on self-reflexivity, have highlighted the need to find a philosophical path through this labyrinth.

I don’t think I’ve made my point particularly well – and of course the point itself may simply be wrong. But my reaction to Sinthome’s initial response was, essentially, that the content was amazing – but that this content remains inconsistent with the form, with the internal mechanics or operation or expression of the philosophical approach. So, Sinthome tells me, as a matter of content – as a stance – that we must “recognize that the subject itself is caught up in these networks of relations” – and then offers some terms and concepts that will help express this perception. But I don’t see the philosophical approach itself expressing its own status of being caught up in a network of relations – explaining self-reflexively how it does not stand outside of the ontology it describes – and therefore how one can, within some specific network of relations, have learned the determinate lessons this philosophical approach has to teach us.

Sinthome rightly criticises relativist approaches for positioning the theorist in a position where, by devaluing all knowledge, the theorist can maintain “an imaginary illusion of mastery” – I think this is absolutely correct, and an extremely important point. But I also think that this risk is not specific to relativist approaches: I believe it applies to any theory that is not self-reflexive, whether relativist or absolutist in form. If we cannot locate our learning – if we cannot explain how the very networks in which we are embedded have whispered to us of their existence – only very recently, since we must acknowledge that the concepts, at least, are new, even if we want to assert that the ontology is not – and have thus helped us in some specifiable way to become aware of our ontological embeddedness – then, whatever our best intentions and explicit disclaimers, we are performatively placing ourselves outside the networks we are claiming to analyse. I would regard lack of self-reflection as a form of assertion of illusory mastery, and it is precisely this situation that I am trying to avoid.

My sense is that, any time we are trying to make new philosophical claims within a framework that seeks to overcome the subject-object divide, the criterion of self-reflection can be met only by an historical theory. By the term “historical theory”, I don’t mean a theory that simply leaves a space – like a black box – into which historical contingency, context, or a similar concept can flow – a theory that asserts as a stance that history is important. I mean a theory that can explain how its specific insights – which are self-evidently achieved at a specific moment in time – have become for determinate reasons easier to think at that moment.

I should note that, although I recognise Sinthome’s concerns about the way in which historicisation has traditionally been pressed into the service of relativism, I do not believe that this traditional relationship is also a logical one. I would suggest that identifying the historical origins of a concept does not, simply by dint of historicising that concept, necessarily limit the applicability of that concept to the historical moment in which that concept has arisen. I won’t develop this argument here (and may not be ready to elaborate a fully adequate argument, in any event), but my hunch is that we can get from a self-reflexive historical theory to a reconstructed understanding of the sorts of claims we traditionally wish to make, for example, when thinking of natural science. But I’ll leave this issue for a future post… I think it’s a bit more intuitive to grasp how this kind of historicisation can sensitise us to ways in which ideas might resonate at particular moments – and therefore make a useful contribution to non-relativist scepticism – to what I tend to call critical agnosticism in evaluating scientific and philosophical claims. I think, in other words, that there is a fairly direct connection between such an historical theory, and what Sinthome has called “the Enlightenment project of critique and demystification” – I think we can get from here to there… But I’m certain that this last point is far too compressed even to communicate the gestalt of what I suspect we can do…

But I’ll stop here – writing about these concepts always leaves me with the simultaneous sensation that I am being profoundly basic – discussing things that surely everyone must already know, but have left behind for good reasons I’m too simple to see – and at the same time that the whole thing is simply too complex, and that I am completely inadequate to hold the relevant concepts in my mind or to think at the requisite level… I’ll hope that this rather primitive approach to the issue might at least provide a useful foil – and I’ll apologise in advance if the topic is so off the mark that it does not provide conceptual traction…

[Note: image modified from Tarquin’s original, available from Wikipedia, and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. For full license details, please see the image’s Wikipedia page.]

Theory in Practice

Sinthome at Larval Subjects has taken a somewhat ill-formed question of mine, and woven it into a beautiful series of reflections on a vital philosophical project. My schedule is unfortunately crashing down around me as I type, so I don’t have time this morning to write a response that could stand on its own: readers interested in following this latest iteration of this conversation should begin at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome’s post replicates, and then responds to, a set of questions I originally posed via email. To pick up very quickly and inadequately a few hanging points (note that, since this is more a comment than a stand-alone post, I’ll write here in comment style, addressing the points directly to Sinthome):

(1) First of points of similarity between the two projects:

In terms of the worry expressed at the beginning of your response over whether this project might be “absurd”, or at the end over whether you’ve adequately demonstrated the importance of the project: these might be issues for certain kinds of public writing – I’m not sure. Nothing in my original email, however, was intended to call into question whether your ontological stance is important – I accept this as read.

One quick terminological point, basically to translate between the vocabularies used across the two blogs, which might otherwise be a source of some confusion: when you say you are critical of “epistemology”, you mean, essentially, what I have tried to express in criticising what I have tended to call “unmasking and debunking critiques”. I have made essentially identical criticisms across a variety of writings of the relativism/absolutism, subject/object, etc. dichotomies, and agree that it’s essential to stop falling back into these kinds of polarisation, if we are to make sense of anything important, philosophically or politically.

I also agree that Hegel is an incredibly useful source to mine for concepts on how to do this – concepts that, I also agree, do not have to remain bound up in Hegel’s overarching theoretical or normative framework.

My reaction to your rejection of the term “epistemology” is a bit similar to how I understood your reaction to Scott Eric Kaufman’s decision to reject the term “theory”: it feels as though there’s an unnecessary (and potentially counterproductive) conflation of the term “epistemology” with a particular way of approaching epistemology. That said, I’m not picky about terminology – if you think the term “epistemology” has been irrevocably tainted by association with failed approaches, by all means choose another term (I’ve done this myself, where I’ve felt that the weight of history has made it unfortunately impossible to use an otherwise perfectly salient term).

My concern is simply that we not lose sight of epistemological questions – which I don’t believe are reducible to the problematic “how do we bridge the subject-object divide” style questions, which I think you rightly reject (and I’d absolutely agree that reflection on this properly begins with Hegel, although of course it won’t end there…). We still, though, need a way of talking about how we understand the insight that underlies your alternative ontology – as well as a means to make explicit whatever links we believe we have to the Enlightenment project. I think of these as essentially epistemological questions, whatever name we decide to use.

(2) In terms of points of potential difference (although, in saying this, I need to indicate that I see the points I’m making here as essentially additive, rather than critical – my instinct is that these might be steps that are perhaps also required for the project as you’ve outlined it, rather than points that would compel any kind of fundamental reconsideration of the project itself):

My main question, if I can figure out a way to say this, is whether it is adequate to treat this as solely a problem within philosophy – such that you can resolve it solely by positing an alternative philosophical discourse, without connection with history or sociology. If you were engaged in contemplative philosophy, I’d leave this aside. My sense, though, is that you are acutely concerned with the connections between philosophy and practice – whether political or therapeutic – with philosophy as a discipline that in some sense speaks to the potential for transformation.

My instinct is that, once you go here, some reaches toward sociology and history can actually save some headaches – and may, perhaps, be the only way (at least, they are the only way I can currently see) that might resolve some of your worries about how to reconstitute the Enlightenment project of demystification and critique. I won’t be able to explain this very well here, but my instinct is that – post Freud and Marx, as you said in one of your earlier posts – it may no longer be available to us to treat philosophical errors as mere errors in thinking. They may also be errors in thinking, but we may need to get a sense of how the errors themselves, while not predetermined or inevitable in any way, are nevertheless also not random: that we can understand, historically and sociologically, why people might find it tempting to make errors like this at the present moment in time. By the same token, we can also begin to understand, historically and sociologically, why it’s also available to practice to push beyond these errors – how our historical experiences, if we reflect on them and pay attention to their implications, suggest the practical, as well as the conceptual, falseness of common philosophical formulations.

Following this route, I think, can provide us with a new way of thinking about the relationship between historicisation and critique, such that historicisation comes to be understood as a way of holding our time in thought, of using the things we have taught ourselves are possible in order to open ourselves to a realm of determinate contingency – not the Benjaminian leap into the “free” air of history, but the political drive informed by what philosophical reflection can show us about the potentials we have constituted through social practices that have unfolded in a specific time.

Apologies for the inadequacy of this response – I will enjoy coming back to this later, when my schedule is not so nightmarish. A bit of bad timing, as I’m just coming off of a couple of relatively clear weeks, into a couple of horrible ones…

Re-irritating the Differences: Missives from the Mis-reading Group (I)

This week I take my turn to introduce our readings. In response to:

J K Austin, “How to do Things with Words”, 1962

We are now reading:

J Derrida, “Signature Event Context”, 1971
J Searle, “Reiterating the Differences”, 1977

To be followed next week by:

J Derrida, “Limited a b c”, 1977
J Derrida, “Afterword”, 1987

I will start with a summary of this week’s readings, followed by some remarks of a more critical nature. I ask to be excused from the lengthy nature of the summary of Derrida’s article in particular. This is partly due to some difficulties we had in following his argument through (with some some ambiguities and confusion resulting in our discussion…), but also because it is relevant both to Searle’s critique and Derrida’s subsequent replies.

“Signature Event Context” is composed of three parts and an introduction. The introduction presents the problem of the defineability of communication, and relates this to context on the basis “that the ambiguous field of the word ‘communication’ can be massively reduced by the limits of what is called a context” (p.2). This in turn defers the problem to that of whether “the conditions of a context are ever absolutely determinable?” (p.2). There is then a hint of the deconstructive strategy to be employed ahead: not only is there a “theoretical inadequacy of the current concept of context (linguistic or nonlinguistic)” but also working through the question of determinability of context will require “a certain generalisation and a certain displacement of the concept of writing” (3). Read more of this post

Close Reading

My son has seized my copy of Protestant Ethic, and has slipped away to a corner with his prize. He is now sitting on a bean bag elephant, reading the book out loud – one letter at a time.

Reading Group: Text Steps

The reading group had a particularly glorious discussion today – I won’t pre-empt the online version, as LMagee has reserved the introductory posts on the Derrida and Searle debate over the next couple of weeks. (LMagee also tells me that I must stop writing so much on the blog, as this is causing uncertainty over whether it’s “clear” enough for others to post… I gather I’ve been engaging in the online equivalent of talking over everyone else… ;-P)

I will, though, say that we had a fantastic discussion of whether and how Derrida’s works might be considered political – a discussion that went back and forth in a most engaging manner, until LMagee introduced an historical example that was… extremely useful to me – much appreciated, LM, very kind of you… 🙂 I gather that LM was quite pleased to assist – or isn’t this how I should interpret this reaction?

Start introducing Derrida into things and all sorts of underhanded tactics get used – your own examples get used against you…

Regardless, LM will have the upper hand – or at least the introductory one ;-P – in the more formal discussion to take place here at an inderminate later date (presumably, whenever I shut up for long enough to allow others to post…).

For those keeping track of things from a distance, today’s discussion centred on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Searle’s “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida”. Next week we’ll pick up with the remainder of Derrida’s work – “Limited Inc a b c…” and “Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion”.

Those who can’t find the time to read the original might consider consulting Scott Eric Kaufman’s graphic novel version of this debate.

Better Never Than Late

So it’s been a hot and smoky weekend in Melbourne. The cool change has just come through – not much help unfortunately, I think, for those on the massive firefront. But a signal for me to shake off my heat-induced sluggishness, and get a bit of thinking done.

I’m well and truly past my self-imposed deadline for writing something substantive on the reading group discussion of the debate between Pinker & Jackendoff and Chomksy, Hauser & Fitch, over the evolution of the language faculty – the trajectory of which is conveniently outlined at Language Log. I’ve hesitated to post in part because I was trying to work out a way to break through what seemed to be the main issue that arose in the reading group discussion: the perception that these articles were highly technical pieces, written by and for specialists, such that deciding between the various “they said-they said” arguments would be essentially impossible for a lay reader. I wanted to work out whether there were some way to approach these readings that could at least minimise this reaction – since the reaction, after all, tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What I do below is therefore not summarise the debate – as I suspect that even a summary of these already fairly condensed and economical texts would mire us in minutiae. Instead, I provide some suggestions that might help someone read the debate a bit more easily – mainly by locating the various empirical skirmishes in the context of what I take to be the overarching theoretical conflict that motivates the empirical battles. I’ll say at the outset that I very much doubt the reading framework I outline is the only – let alone the best – way of working your way into these texts. I offer it more as an example of how I personally went about trying to make sense of this discussion, without a specialised background in any of the scientific fields referenced in these texts: hopefully, your personal path through these texts will substantially improve on mine.

I want to start where Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch begin: by noting that the purpose of these articles – a point agreed by all sides in the debate – is to make a case for the value of interdisciplinary work when investigating the evolution of the language faculty. This point is more important than it may seem, particularly to non-specialist readers: it tells us that, in spite of first impressions, these articles will not assume that readers have any specific disciplinary background – they may assume a sound scientific knowledge of some sort, but they won’t be assuming a socialisation into any particular scientific discipline: the nature of interdisciplinary work is that you cannot assume such things. This therefore holds out hope that, in principle, a non-specialist reader ought to be able to make sense of these debates.

Where I’d like to go next is to make the suggestion that, in the beginning, readers bracket the empirical skirmishes. This may sound a bit perverse, as these empirical conflicts make up the overwhelming majority of the exchange – and, in fact, mark the least contested points of contact between the two sides: the existence or nature of any theoretical argument is disputed within these texts; there is more consensus over where the empirical fault lines lie. Nevertheless, I suspect we’ll find more light if we step back a bit from the empirical heat, and take a closer look at the strange, half-denied theoretical debate that runs through these articles.

I’ve characterised the theoretical debate as “half denied” for a specific reason: Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch don’t admit that their position is motivated by any specific theoretical perspective. Instead, their repeated claim is that they are posing the only possible scientific questions one could pose about the evolution of language at this moment in time – a point to which I’ll return in a moment. Pinker & Jackendoff then argue: no, these aren’t the only possible scientific questions that could be posed – and, in fact, you have only posed these questions because you are presupposing the validity of a particular linguistic theory: the Minimalist Program. Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch then say: we are doing no such thing, our questions have nothing to do with the Minimalist Program – they are instead the only possible questions a scientist could ask. Pinker & Jackendoff then come back and say: actually, a scientist could ask many other questions, if not already inclined to believe the Minimalist Program were true: here, look! – we’ll show you some…

Essentially, then, in venerable academic tradition, the debate boils down to a set of “did not!” – “did too!” exchanges over whether Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch are pushing the Minimalist Program on the sly. The empirical exchanges all fit within this context – which is why so many of the empirical debates are not primarily about what the facts are – not about who did what, when, where, why and how – but about which specific facts matter, and in what ways they matter, for understanding the evolution of human language. I am suggesting, in other words, that this is not an empirical quarrel, but a philosophical one.

Because what I’ve written is somewhat long, I’ll tuck the main body below the fold. I’ll have to apologise in advance for the length, and for what will almost certainly be inadequate copy editing – I’m writing this on borrowed time, so to speak, and I haven’t been able to give this piece the thorough proofing it undoubtedly desperately needs. Read more of this post

So Where Do You Stop From Here?

My son has just made a sort of conceptual breakthrough. He’s at an age where all activities must be repeated over and over and over – and over. Whoever believes that children have short attention spans really should compare them to their parents…

Fortunately, my son is also an expert negotiator so, when I can begin to feel brain cells suiciding from the Nth repetition of an activity, we hold a conversation that goes something like: “X more times?” He’ll contemplate this, and occasionally suggest a different number (since his numerical knowledge is still slightly shaky, sometimes the revised number involves fewer repetitions… ;-P). And then we count down the repetitions, until the final one, when I’ll announce, “Last time?”. Up until today, he has always followed this with a nod and a confirming “Last time!” And then we usually do one final repetition, and the activity ends peacefully…

Today, though, he departed the text. “Last time?”, I asked. “Last time!” he replied. Then, once we had done our “last time”, I could almost feel the strain of concentration, and he turned hopefully and asked, “Another last time?”

I wonder if I can use this concept for article deadlines?

Reading Group: Metaphors We May Live to Regret

So after a bit of email ring-around, some advance notice of what the reading group will be looking at through the holiday period.

First: I know, I know – I was meant to post on PJ vs. CHF two days ago. I do still intend to do this – Adorno just happened rudely to intrude.

Second: I should have mentioned previously that LMagee and I have something of an… er… side pot going on Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. While not an “official” reading group reading (perhaps we can consider it a reading group subcommittee reading?), LMagee will write something on the book here at some noncommittal point in the future, and I will respond at some noncommittal point after that.

Third: inspired in part by Robert, the group will turn back to Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, and then to the recent debate between Pinker and Lakoff, once we have finished our two-week detour on Derrida and Searle. LMagee has asked – sort of – to add one more reading to the Lakoff-Pinker discussion:

Firstly I thought that in the spirit of your recent Lakoff interlocuter, our eventual reading of Lakoff might also, if you’re willing (and if even if you’re not, since it is public…), include your previous Lakoff article, as a way of engaging with Chomsky-Pinker-Lakoff in relation to language and politics.

Fourth: So all of this should get us comfortably past the holidays and into the new year (ooo… that was strange to write – where did this last year go???). The proposal for the new year is that the reading group use this foray into “language and politics” as our transition point into a bit of Continental philosophy, of currently undetermined lineage.

Fragmentary Thoughts on Dialectic of Enlightenment

I’ve been struggling to bring together bits and pieces that I’ve written on Adorno’s understanding of the psychology of reification, to try to figure out how to organise a coherent argument that might actually be useful in establishing some goals for contemporary theory.

Adorno interests me because he can, in places, read as though he is writing a criticism of fundamental mechanisms of conceptual thought, such that critique almost appears to be a struggle to think against the grain of thought itself – a sort of fundamental theoretical pessimism, from which it would be difficult to conceptualise a form of critique that could reach beyond the contemplative. One of my colleagues is prone to using Adorno to criticise conceptual abstractions as such – an interpretation that would seem defensible based on these dimensions of Adorno’s texts.

In other places, though, I think it is clear that Adorno understands himself as a theorist of the specific ways in which thought is scarred by its socialisation into a society characterised by class domination. This critique is still certainly pessimistic, in that the class theoretic framework doesn’t allow Adorno to link specifical critical sensibilities with determinate potentials for transformation. It is no longer, however, intrisically contemplative (although you could argue that it is conjuncturally contemplative for the moment in which Adorno is writing, given how he understands the transition away from liberal capitalism).

Adorno’s argument adopts an interesting strategy of differentiating between the psychological effects that the experience of powerlessness might have, when the subject recognises that this powerlessness is “objective” – reflective of the limited material powers of a given society – and the effects this same experience might have when the subject knows or suspects that powerlessness is “artificial” – sustained by social practices, rather than reflective of material limitations. Adorno argues that the experience of artificial – socially-enforced, rather than natural – powerlessness accounts for particular qualitative characteristics in forms of perception and thought – particularly the existence of a particular kind of impulse toward abstraction and universalisation, manifest in the reification of class relations, as well as in the perception of nature as a passive and lawlike object for technical manipulation.

What I suspect I need to do in my article is tease out two levels of analysis within Adorno’s writings – one more historically specific, and one on a quite sweeping historical register. I don’t agree specifically with either level, but I find one more productive – more illustrative of some of the problems a contemporary critical theory might need to address – than the other. On the more productive level, Adorno is trying to understand the qualitative characteristics of contemporary forms of perception and thought – and he is asking two questions that, I think, remain important: how do we make sense, theoretically, of people’s ability to be aware of counterfactual potentials for the transformation of existing society? And: what impact does it have – for better and, sometimes, for worse – that people might have such an awareness?

Adorno lays the foundation for a potentially historically specific analysis of these issues, focussing on the transition from liberal to state-centred forms of capitalism in the early 20th century, and asking what impact this transition – which left the individual so much more objectively powerless before the encompassing state, than it was before the institutions of liberal capitalism – had on ego development and on the ability to translate an awareness of transformative potentials into political action. Adorno offers a particularly poignant analysis of how this experience of powerlessness is related to unconscious rage – an analysis that is, I think, important to explore in detail (although I won’t do so in this post). Nevertheless, because Adorno understands capitalism primarily in terms of class relations, his core analytical categories won’t actually allow him to focus solely on this one historical transition – or even solely on modern history. Instead, like Habermas, Adorno chases the logic of his analytical categories, and in my opinion these categories lead him very far astray – into a sweeping account of what he then must claim are similar qualitative distortions in perception and thought back to the dawn of recorded time.

This account of human prehistory and the impacts of class domination on perception and thought is explored most clearly in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, although there are sufficient gestures in works like Negative Dialectics to suggest that the basic framework is implied throughout Adorno’s work.

To follow briefly the narrative from Dialectic of Enlightenment: Adorno and Horkheimer start with the category of mimesis – with the imitation of heterogenous, volatile nature within thought. They speak of the spontaneous awe and dread experienced in the face of overwhelming nature – arguing that the “primitive” belief in “unidentified and volatile mana (pp. 20-21) – as a situation in which mana, the moving spirit, is no projection, but the echo of the real supremacy of nature in the weak souls of primitive men” (p. 15). This objective powerlessness leads to a kind of conceptual and practical imitation of nature in an attempt to master objective dependence – it results in a bringing into the self of a heterogenous perception of nature very different from the universalising distance characteristic of contemporary science – a perception predicated on nature’s absolute and unpredictable power.

Adorno and Horkheimer criticise later thinkers for anachronistically interpreting this reaction to nature as a projection, arguing that a projection would require a sharp division between self and nature (subject and object) that does not exist at this point in prehistory. Adorno and Horkheimer argue,

Like science, magic pursues aims, but seeks to achieve them by mimesis – not by progressively distancing itself from the object. It is not grounded in the ‘sovereignty of ideas’, which the primitive, like the neurotic, is said to ascribe to himsel; there can be no ‘over-evaluation of mental processes as against reality’ where there is no radical distinction between thought and reality (p. 11).

Projection arises, for Adorno and Horkheimer, only when the “reality principle” with which the self resigned itself to its own impotence before nature – “the fatality by means of which prehistory sanctioned the incomprehensibility of death” (pp. 28-29) – is carried over into a situation in which “natural conditions exert their power no longer directly but through the medium of human consciousness” (p. 17). At this later historical moment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, a class of professionals in magic come to use the awe and fear others feel toward nature to justify their class position – such that humans began “worshipping what they were once in thrall to only in the same way as all other creatures” (p. 17). It is this shift – from the natural awareness of material constraints, to the ritualised worship of nature – that generates the projection of human social relations onto nature.

Adorno and Horkheimer recount a vision of increasing division of labour, associated with the rise of specialists in the performance of ritual acts:

In the first stages of nomadic life the members of tribe still took an individual part in the process of influencing the course of nature… In it, the world is already divided into the territory of power and the profane area; as the emanation of mana, the course of nature is elevated to become the norm, and submission to it is required…. [however] in later times intercourse with spirits and submission were assigned to different classes: the power on one side, and obedience on the other. For the vanquished… the recurrent, eternally similar natural processes become the rhythm of labor according to the beat of the cudgel and whip which resounds in every monotonous ritual… In the process, the permanence of nature which they signify is always the permanence of the social pressure which they represent. The dread objectified as a fixed image becomes the sign of the established domination of the privileged. (p. 21)

In Adorno and Horkheimer’s account, this process of the consolidation of class domination is already solidified by the time written records arise:

When language enters into history its masters are priests and sorcerers. Whoever harms the symbols is, in the name of the supernatural powers, subject to their earthly counterparts, whose representatives are the chosen organs of society…. Unidentified, volatile mana was rendered consistent by men and forcibly materialized. Soon the magicians…. expanded their professional knowledge and their influence with the expansion of the spirit world and its characteristics. The nature of the sacred being transferred itself to the magicians, who were privy to it. (pp. 20-21)

Adorno and Horkheimer conclude that the hypostatisation of class relations is intrinsically related to the vision of nature as a fixed, timeless objectivity – one that could be predicted and controlled by the targeted interventions of specialists. The abolition of one is required to overcome the other.

Within this narrative, the actual material dependence of humans on nature appears to serve as a kind of check on the development of projection: the mimetic response to the differentiated, volatile, unpredictable character of nature can thus persist, alongside the projection of human social relations onto nature, precisely because nature has the objective ability to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of ritual – to disrupt human attempts to regularise, tame and tender predictable intrinsically volatile natural forces. As humans slowly develop more genuine mastery over nature, however, these mimetic elements subside, while the projection of human social relations onto the nature – the hypostatisation of class domination as essential and objective, and the perception of nature as a passive, lawlike object of human manipulation – become universal. Within this analytical framework, then, contemporary forms of perception and thought sit on the same qualitative continuum with the forms of perception and thought characteristic of all other settled human communities – it is only the rapid rise in our objective mastery over nature that has driven away the heterogenous mimetic elements of thought that were once preserved by reminders of nature’s persistent power, leaving universalising forms of thought uniquely transcendent and now falsely identified with reason as such.

Adorno rejects the option of regressing back to mimetic forms of thought – predicated as they were on humanity’s objective powerlessness, these forms of thought would no longer be appropriate to a human community that had attained a level of genuine material mastery. Instead, Adorno suggests, there might be a potential to move forward – to preserve the “conceptual” elements within thought alongside a differentiated, heterogenous perception of nature – a possibility Adorno associates with the creation of a social context that would offer genuine potentials for the cultivation of the self.

I’ll try to come back to this, as well as Adorno’s more historically specified analysis, in later posts…